What motivates you?

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by L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.

It’s an innocent enough question: “What motivates you?” Yet it is almost too innocuous to excite any depth of response, the sort of uninspired question a radio interviewer might ask one’s guest in order to keep the conversation moving. Indeed it was that very circumstance which this morning during my breakfast repast captured my attention while listening – as I always do – to CBC Radio. I can’t recall who the host was interviewing nor about what, but I distinctly recall being intrigued by the question.

The first thing that came to mind was the seemingly obvious identification that we are in fact motivated to do what we do; that is, that things don’t just happen. Mr. Everyman’s progress is sired by incentives or causes. I suppose that for some the unfolding of their lives is nothing more glorious than the toss of a die, but nonetheless that sometimes harsh randomness does not in my opinion extinguish the fervour we may still feel for the controlled conduct of our lives in spite of our luck.

Tuning into one’s private stimulation is perhaps the first step in bringing forth results. I think you’ll agree that acknowledging that there are things which incite one to activity is more likely destined to fruition than merely assuming that knee-jerk reaction to events or going with the flow. This recognition may come late in life for even the most successful of our number. The sometimes overwhelming confluence of social and cultural factors can lamentably direct us in ways which have very little to do with our deeper inclinations. Suddenly twenty-five years into the game we find ourselves sitting at a desk stunned by the inutility of what we’re doing, a rude awakening at times. Yet the realization is never too late as it prompts an acceptance of a sensitivity to the more fundamental features of our make-up which may end by precipitating almost sacrificial though beneficial behaviour.

That was the second point of comprehension; namely, that the distinctive marks of one’s character are what drive us. Identifying them is the equivalent of analyzing a seed to fathom what it will generate. Equally important is the knowledge of how to assist the germination of that seed.

Some people thrive upon repetition and precision; others prefer a less obsessive and more relaxed environment. Either way, what’s bred in the bone will out in the flesh. Knowing what’s happening within oneself allows one the privilege of being able to side-step or ignore useless endeavours, and to nurture and develop what is dearest to us each.

As I have observed before, “There are two ways to get down a river: either you know where to go or where not to go”. Call it a process of elimination. So often we waste time doing anything but what we want to do or what we are suited to do. I suspect nature loves what is ultimately easiest (in the sense of most adaptable) in the end. Life needn’t be an uphill effort to conquer someone else’s battles.

This introspection may, however, be both liberating and limiting. Too often for example we are mistakenly encouraged to imagine that our capacity is boundless (see “The Little Engine That Could” a diabolic and misguided children’s tale of self-discovery with about as much credibility as the American Dream) when in fact it would be more properly expounded that our abilities are governed and controlled by our constitution. Yet even in this more restrictive view of our capabilities I find solace in that it encourages dedication to what one does best, in itself both emancipating and enfranchising, not to mention that it enables one to turn down what you know in your heart isn’t right.

That has to be the third and most important point of analysis. Suddenly knowledge of what motivates you is the authority by which you act. How great is that! Now you have a reasoned excuse for doing what you prefer to do! Talk about cutting away the dead wood! It is no doubt in this spirit that one hears of those who profess to getting out of bed every morning and loving what they do. Put another way, if you do what you like, you’ll like what you do. Granted such a perfunctory adage is more cute than persuasive, but given sufficient reflection upon what exactly it is that one likes to do, there may indeed be a germ of truth in it.